Q & A With Gabfest Host Stephen Metcalf: Who Won the Great Granola Off, Secret Recipes, Cereal Reverse Engineering + Why Granola Is NOT Bathroom Patchouli
Julia TurnerThe Great Granola Off
Since Monday, after you read our conversation with Andy Bowers, executive producer of Slate's Culture Gabfest podcast, you've probably been wondering, "Who won the Granola Off competition?"
The answer is not Gabfest host Stephen Metcalf.
How do we know this? First of all we listened to the podcast "The Great Granola Showdown" edition (which starts off with June Thomas' not quite convincing argument for the merits of Downton Abbey season two and culminates with a double blind tasting filled with thoughtful chewing, lively debate and occasional slurping noises).
But we also know that Mr. Metcalf did not emerge victorious because we tracked him down last night. At the time he was in Manhattan, having just discovered that his train had been delayed for an hour. Which meant more time to walk us through his defeat in just the way we like it: Unfiltered, gloves off and only half-kidding. (We especially enjoyed the part where he disparages the other entries by comparing them to the sort of collection of dried leaves and flower petals, wood shavings, cinnamon and lavender that you'd find freshening the air in someone's bathroom.) But was the competition rigged? "The results could have appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine," Metcalf insisted. "In that sense it was untainted, although I don't abide by the results."
Squid Ink: We have obtained a tweeted photograph of the granola submissions. Which letter were you?
Stephen Metcalf: I believe I was letter B.
SI: B is clearly a beautiful bowl of granola!
SM: Thank you. I agree. You have to know how to toast your oats without making them bitter.
SI: What is the secret to that?
SM: The truth is that it really is a secret. A friend of mine teaches at Georgetown Law School. Apparently this is a granola recipe that one of her students gives out as a show of respect and love and adulation and also, as she has since told me, to suck up. It's a secret recipe from her grandmother. I can't divulge the actual ingredients or the specifics of how it gets made. I would say the secret is in its simplicity and therefore in its elegance. I have to say I still prefer my granola by far to the other contestants.
SI: So you're saying that part of the secret to the secret recipe how you toast the oats?
SM: In all honesty, speaking with a degree of non-facetiousness, the key of the recipe that has been handed to me is really so simple. But it's like many simple things: You wouldn't be able to reverse engineer it from tasting it but you could teach it to a fifth grader once you cracked the code. I mean, it's really a simple recipe. But I maintain that it's the granola. Some people just don't want to see the truth. They're unreachable.
SI: Unreachable? Explain.
SM: Beauty contests, I guess, are all about putting on the tightest bikini and doing the most gratuitously show-offy thing that you possibly can. But it really doesn't speak to the abiding character of the person. My granola is simple, elegant, toasted and something you actually want to eat on a regular basis, as opposed to something designed to win. You know how every year the the Palme d'Or goes to some film that you then run out and go see and it kind of sucks but you understand why a film jury would pick it?
SI: We know what you mean. But let's get back to the idea of "show-offy." Are we talking about fancy nuts? Exotic dried fruit? What granola component can be considered inappropriately flashy?
SM: Multiple nuts. That sort of sends [the granola] basically in the direction of a vanilla-scented candle or potpourri as opposed to a food. Stick them in a little dish! Put them on top of your toilet! That's not granola, that's not breakfast. Basically you're just dolling it up with a lot of crap: You put in coconut shavings and maybe a drop of sesame oil or four different kinds of nuts or a lot of different dried fruits. You end up with this eclectic mess. What I said originally, I stand by it.
SI: Which is?
SM: People were trying to figure out what the interior of the atom was for two millennia. The final solution for that wasn't needlessly complex. It was true, in part, because it was elegant and simple. In all honesty, I am not bitter, I am not being spiteful. This is not sour grapes. But I'm telling you: I wouldn't eat those other granolas on a regular basis. If I was on a desert island, I would eat the sand instead.
SI: So if you could go back in time you would still endorse your friend Naomi's recipe as the best ever.
SM: The truth is that all of this grew out of the fact that I had nothing to endorse at the end of that particular podcast. I'd just made this recipe for the second time. Even though I burnt it and miscooked it, it was still the best thing I've ever eaten. I stand by this granola. Their granola is something you find at some ritzy food bar. If your friend happens to have access to some VIP lounge at an airport and there's some ridiculous hedge-funder-quality crappy food bar, this is the granola that you'd find. That's what I lost to.
SI: How did the contest play itself out?
SM: The Sporkful guys were at a couple of microphones and Dana and Julia, who didn't have a horse in the race, were judges as well. They took the four seats around the table. Laura Anderson, who writes the food column for Slate, [entered a granola into the competition]. I would say she had a serious home-field advantage. If you're Julia Turner and you're deputy editor of the publication, how are you going to let the food writer who writes a column called You're Doing It Wrong lose to an amateur who could then turn to her and say, "No, Laura. You're doing it wrong. You fucked up. Your granola sucked." It was a tilted playing field to begin with. It was so fricking awkward. Laura Anderson and I were actually in the room while they were doing the blind tasting.
I have to say The Sporkful guys are geniuses at podcasting. Those guys are very clever, very funny. They offered ongoing tasting notes. That sounds like watching fingernails grow. But they made it, on a sentence-by-sentence basis, one of the most hilarious things I'd ever heard. It was really quite good.
SI: Anything else we should know?
SM: The clear loser was the store-bought granola. It was a placebo, the organic granola from Whole Foods. It was like pencil shavings. I mean, no self-respecting individual would eat it.
SI: When they announced that your granola didn't win, how did you handle it?
SM: On broadcast you'll hear someone in the background, a kind of crazy-sounding person in the background yelling, "Recount! Recount!" Just ignore that. That's a glitch in the recording.
SI: Was the Granola Off so successful that it will become a new Culture Gabfest segment? Will a pie crust contest be next?
SM: Part of the charm of this one is that I am sort of an arrogant prick and I laid down this marker: The world's greatest granola. Which I stick by. But pie crust? I don't have the world's greatest pie crust. It would eliminate me. But Laura? She's a real resource. She's worked closely with Mark Bittman. She's a really gifted chef and a good writer and a terrific person and persona on the radio. So any segment that involves her and The Sporkful guys, who are an absolute hoot, I think is going to be a success. But to involve my ego -- I don't know if it makes it better or worse -- I have to find something else I can cook better than anybody.
SI: There is a rumor that there is a slim chance that the recipe could be published. True?
SM: We thought that if that recipe won, then we would then call the woman at the end of the show. But we really went way, way over. We were convinced we wouldn't be able to call the woman who is the origin of this recipe, who is an authentically earth-bound, earth mama, Georgetown Law School-educated Superwoman. I still want to [see if we can publish the recipe]. But I think it's hard to call her up now that I didn't drive her granola to victory. She seemed very sincere. She said, "It's something that I give as a token of real, genuine affection or admiration and I give it out very sparingly." So it may have to stay secret.
On March 20, Slate teams up with Zócalo Public Square for a live Gabfest featuring the Slate critics as well as special guest Elizabeth Banks at the Peterson Automotive Museum, 6060 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information go to http://zocalopublicsquare.org/upcoming.php?event_id=518
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